Gone Girl, femme fatales and fear of women

Last week, I thought I was the only person in the world who found the success of Gone Girl, both as a novel and a film, troubling.

But it seems I’m not the only person who dislikes Gone Girl after all. First, Robert Jackson Bennett expressed his discomfort with the misogynist undertones of Gone Girl (see this post for details). And now Cath Murphy points out at Lit Reactor that the enormous success of Gone Girl reveals some troubling things about contemporary society.

Unlike Robert Jackson Bennett, Cath Murphy actually enjoyed the novel Gone Girl as a cleverly constructed and well written thriller. Indeed, this matches what I’ve heard from most people who’ve read Gillian Flynn’s novel. It’s allegedly well written, cleverly constructed and full of twists and turns. Unfortunately, it’s also chock full of misogyny. And indeed, Cath Murphy’s problem is not so much with the novel itself or even the film adaptation, but with the fact that a story about a psychopathic, scheming, manipulative woman who confirms every men’s rights activist’s worst beliefs about women is such a huge success today.

Cath Murphy compares Gone Girl‘s protagonist Amy to the scheming villainous femme fatales of the classic film noir of the 1940s and early 1950s and its literary models, hard-boiled detective and noir fiction. And indeed there are certain parallels between the classic noir femme fatales and Amy. Both are women who use sex to get what they want, who seduce and entrap men to get them to do their bidding, which usually involves murder, often of the woman’s husband. Their motives are often hazy – wouldn’t divorce or just dumping the guy and starting over be a cheaper and less risky option? What is more, both Amy and the classic noir femme fatales reflect social anxieties about women and particularly uncontrolled female sexuality.

To quote an iconic femme fatale, the lovely Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

Unlike Gone Girl, the femme fatales of classic noir fiction and film have never much bothered me. For starters, because they were simply glorious. They were not the woman you hated, they were the woman you wanted to be – except for the crime and the murder part, of course.

Besides, by the time I discovered them as a budding cineast in the late 1980s, the femme fatales of the old noir films were no more real than Jessica Rabbit. Look at these two clips from Gilda, a 1946 classic starring Rita Hayworth. She is Jessica Rabbit become flesh or rather Jessica is Rita Hayworth turned cartoon.

Though in retrospect, something did bother me about those old films noir after all. It wasn’t the femme fatales – after all, they were beautiful, stunning and wore some of the most gorgeous gowns known to mankind. No, what bothered me about many old Hollywood films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s was what I now recognise as rank misogyny. Though at the time, I couldn’t articulate my feelings beyond “The men in those movies are always so mean to the women and treat them badly, even though the women have done nothing to deserve it.”

Take for example, Gilda, the movie from which the two clips above were taken. Those two clips are wonderful, but the film itself isn’t. It’s the story of a guy named Johnny (played by Glenn Ford) who really, really hates Gilda, but at the same time wants her. Unfortunately, Gilda also happens to be married to Johnny’s boss and best friend, on whom Johnny seems to have a crush as well (honestly, Gilda makes so much more sense, if you assume that Johnny and Gilda’s husband are both bisexual). There is a happy end of sorts, when the friend is revealed as a villain, freeing Gilda for Johnny. I still didn’t like the ending, because Johnny was a jerk and Gilda deserved so much better than him

It’s quite telling that I had to look up who played two male protagonists in Gilda, but have absolutely no problems remembering who played Gilda. It’s similar for other films with femme fatale characters. I can usually remember who was the female star, but have problems remembering the male stars, unless it was Humphrey Bogart (who is notable for treating women decently in his movies) or Clark Gable (usually played massive jerks). Because at least for me, the women were the main attraction of these films, while the men were interchangable square-jawed dudes in suits. Coincidentally, I also know without prompting that the female protagonist of Gone Girl is called Amy, but always have to look up what her husband is called.

As an adult, I recognise that viewed through the lens of the 1930s through 1950s, the women in these old Hollywood films had done something to deserve the bad treatment they got. Namely the dared to use their bodies and their sexualities to get what they want. They dared to have sex, though you never saw any of it. And though they were usually portrayed as nightclub singers or dancers or bar waitresses, many of them were actually prostitutes, only that the Hays Code meant that you couldn’t utter the P-word on screen, which led to some mighty confusion among my teenaged self (“It’s forbidden for women to cross state lines in the US? It’s forbidden to drink sugar water? And what’s so bad about being a nightclub singer anyway?”).

The femme fatale is still with us as a character, too, and not just in her natural habitat, the retro-style hardboiled noir novel and its variations. No, she exists all over. Kathleen Turner, coincidentally also the woman who voiced Jessica Rabbit, played a string of femme fatales in several 1980s and early 1990s movies. Every James Bond film ever features at least one villainous femme fatale trying to entrap Bond and sometimes falling for him. And it’s certainly no coincidence that Rosamund Pike, the actress who plays Amy in Gone Girl, first came to international attention playing a villainous temptress in a Bond movie, Pierce Brosnan’s final outing Die Another Day. And who could forget Christina Hendricks, a woman born to play a classic femme fatale if there ever was one, as the marriage-hungry Saffron in Firefly?

Even superhero comics, a genre originally aimed at kids and teenagers, are full of femme fatales. Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Mystique, Black Widow, Emma Frost, the Enchantress all started out as femme fatales. They’re all still present in the latest editions of the comics as well as th successful film and TV franchises based on them, too. Only the Enchantress is conspicuous by her absence in the Thor movies, though we did get her sister Lorelei doing a classic femme fatale turn in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, it’s interesting that though all of the characters listed above started out as villainesses, most of them have reformed by now. Black Widow and Emma Frost are pretty much full time on the side of the angels these days, Mystique and Catwoman at least part of the time. Though you can still see Black Widow employing some classic femme fatale seduction techniques in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers.

Black Widow, Emma Frost, Mystique, etc… are one example of the evolution of the femme fatale into a heroic character. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl is another example of that evolution, though a far more problematic one, from femme fatale to full blown psychopath.

As I’ve mentioned above, femme fatales rarely bothered me, even though I could see the misogynist implications inherent in the stereotype. And a large part of the reason was that femme fatales were clearly fiction. Surely, no one believed that women really are that way.

Only that people did believe it. Double Indemnity, the 1944 noir classic about a scheming, spouse-murdering femme fatale that Cath Murphy mentions in her article, was inspired by an actual case, that of Ruth Snyder who persuaded to her lover to help her murder her husband and was executed for her troubles. The same crime also inspired The Postman Always Rings Twice, another novel which became a classic noir film.

Worse, the femme fatale stereotype also influenced the reporting of court cases involving female defendants who matched the femme fatale stereotype, as the examples of Barbara Graham and Vera Brühne show. Now Vera Brühne very likely was not guilty, while Barbara Graham’s guilt is still disputed. Did the fact that both women matched the then popular stereotype of the murderous femme fatale influence judges and juries? We can but speculate.

Women pressing charges of domestic abuse or rape are already often branded as liars, especially if the perpetrator is wealthy, influential or a celebrity. And the popularity of a novel like Gone Girl, where a woman fakes rape and abuse to get back at men for various imagined slights, might well influence public opinion even further against rape and abuse victims.

Finally, I agree with Cath Murphy that it’s not so much the existence of the novel and the movie which is problematic, but its runaway popularity. Combine Gone Girl‘s image of women with the image of women postulated by that other big bestseller of 2012, namely Fifty Shades of Grey, and you get a very troubling picture. According to the most popular novels of 2012, women are either scheming manipulative psychopaths or clueless virgins longing to be spanked by domineering billionaires, because she alone can save him. And that’s a truly depressing picture, especially considering that the most popular female literary characters of previous years were Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (okay, and Bella Swann), i.e. two much more progressive characters.

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2 Responses to Gone Girl, femme fatales and fear of women

  1. L. A. Julian says:

    Fascinatingly, ACD used this exact plot in “The Problem of Thor Bridge” with the added complication of “the other woman” and the character who comes off worst is the husband.

    It’s not unproblematic (“hot-blooded Latin” stereotype, although some subversion too) but all three main characters are shown as self-deceiving, flawed, and yet also with some good qualities (all of them have people convinced of their innocence because they knew them well, not because they didn’t know them in private) to balance them.

    And it’s the rich white guy with his disproportionate power and entitled mindset that Holmes slams, not either of the financially and socially vulnerable women in the story, which was written in 1922 and set in the Gilded Age. (There’s also a dig by the British cops about Americans loving guns, which is still as relevant as the class commentary.)

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for reminding me of “The Problem of Thor Bridge”, which I must have read, because I read them all, but which had completely escaped my memory.

      It’s fascinating how many old Sherlock Holmes plots reappear in contemporary crime fiction and how well they still work ninety plus years later. It’s also interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle managed to handle the plot in the less sexist way than Gillian Flynn.

      There’s also a movie from the 1990s called Double Jeopardy (note the similarities to Double Indemnity) where a husband fakes his murder and frames his wife. The wife finds out and plots revenge.

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